Derek Holland pitching with confidence

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Try as he might, Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland can't grow a real mustache. He's been trying for more than a month, and the wisp of brown hair above his top lip barely qualifies as peach fuzz.

No worries -- he's pitching like a grown man.


Few things have made Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, Ron Washington and Mike Maddux happier than watching Holland's maturity during the course of the 30 starts he's made this season.

Understand, the issue with Holland has never been stuff; it has been confidence and focus. He's not like C.J. Wilson, who believes every hit he allows is the result of his own mistake or fate.

It's too soon to say Holland has moved into the next phase of his career, but he's pitching the best of his career three weeks before the playoffs begin, which is what the Rangers need.

Of the Rangers' trio of young starters, he's the one who hasn't faltered in the dog days of August. Actually, Holland has thrived.

If the playoffs began today, he'd be starting Game 2 or Game 3, depending on the opponent and the venue.

No question. He's earned it. He deserves it.

Holland made his fourth consecutive quality start for the first time in his career with a strong performance in a 9-1 win Wednesday over the Cleveland Indians that kept the Rangers three games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West.

Holland allowed six hits and one run in a six-strikeout, three-walk, seven-inning performance. It wasn't one of the dominant performances we've seen him deliver on several occasions this season -- he's tied for the AL lead with four shutouts -- but it was impressive because he didn't have great command.

He threw only 69 strikes in 107 pitches, and his only 1-2-3 inning occurred in the first inning.

"I feel good about my pitches. I feel consistent," Holland said. "I know the talk is whether Derek can do it. He's hot, then not, then hot again. It's back and forth."

Not anymore.

The Rangers eliminated any suspense regarding the outcome with an eight-run fourth inning that featured a two-run homer by Mike Napoli and a two-out grand slam by Josh Hamilton.

At that point, the game revolved around whether Holland could handle the long layoff, since the Rangers' half of the fourth inning lasted nearly 30 minutes. Then again, Holland should be used to working with big leads, considering he leads the AL with 7.34 runs per game. Boston's Jon Lester gets the second-most run support with 7.16 runs per game.

That said, we've seen Holland blow big leads before, most notably an 8-3 lead against the Angels that resulted in a 9-8 loss July 20.

Holland has improved considerably since the start of the season. He's 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA in his past 10 starts, in part because he believes in his ability to get big league hitters out.

"You can't draft what he has, and you can't trade for it," Washington said. "He's too talented. We have to teach him how to succeed."

Holland has figured out less is more. Definition: Holland understands he doesn't have to throw the ball as hard as he can because he can get it up to 96 mph with a free and easy motion.

And when he gets in trouble, like he did in the sixth inning, he can fix what's wrong. Holland understands that when he starts to rush, his mechanics and delivery get out of whack, which makes his pitches erratic.

Lonnie Chisenhall homered off Holland to start the fifth inning. In the sixth, the Indians loaded the bases with one out, and Maddux made a visit to the mound.

On Holland's next pitch, Chisenhall grounded into a double play.

End of threat. End of game.

Holland is 14-5 and the owner of the AL's fourth-best winning percentage.

None of use would have bet on that when the season began. Or when he lasted two-thirds of an inning against the Florida Marlins on July 2.

He's growing up, even though he still has a baby face.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.